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Book 78: Cambodia (English) – In the Shadow of the Banyan (Vaddey RATNER)

Once again I saw the face of the Khmer Rouge soldier who’d aimed her gun at the old man’s head. It occurred to me that the look on her face, as she shot the old man, as she watched him fall to the ground, had no name. It was neither anger nor hate nor fear. It was absent of rage or anything recognizable, and I remembered thinking that she had looked neither like a child nor an adult, but a kind of creature all to herself, not altogether real, in the same way a nightmare monster is not unreal.

 

This great novel is set during the takeover of Cambodia by the communist Khmer Rouge in 1975, and the immediate horrific, unbelievable aftermath. I was an idealistic teenager at the time and I first heard about what was happening there in a Readers Digest Condensed Book of Cambodia Year Zero. It seemed that no one outside knew (or cared?) what was happening there at the time, indeed it seems as if most of the world didn’t become aware until years afterwards, perhaps from Christopher Koch’s book The Killing Fields and the subsequent movie. I felt like screaming to the world, “Why don’t you care? Why don’t you DO something?!” Of course there was nothing I could do, maybe nothing anyone could do, until the horror was finished by a Vietnamese invasion – for which they received no thanks, since everyone (not least the Cambodians themselves) suspected them of a colonisation exercise, and perhaps that is what it might have become. But even if they were only swapping one Communist regime for another (and a foreign one at that), surely it was better than the KR which murdered perhaps a third of the total population, totally emptied the cities, and tried to drag the country responsible for the glories of Angkor back to some barbaric agricultural pre-civilisation.
In this novel, the background and experiences of the heroine are very similar to those of the author. She is deprived of her privileged childhood, with one exception: the love of story-telling that she receives from her father. One constant theme in the book is this importance of telling stories. This is one reason why, despite the horrific historical setting, the story is not not 100% negative; there is still beauty to be found as well. The natural world is important, and its symbolism pervades the story.
I realised, or was reminded (as I should know) that life is a lottery. Of those sent from the city, some are lucky with the country folk they are sent to live with and with their new life, others meet tragic ends.
Like Cambodia itself, the heroine Raami survives impossible odds to survive. It turns out that survival depends on what is inside yourself.
Sadly, there is not much true idealism left in the world. It was given a bad name by fanatics such as the KR in Cambodia, the Red Guards of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the Nazis and so many others in relatively recent times. Mostly, what is left is cynicism. What the world needs is renewed idealism ALONG WITH humanity and tolerance.

 

RATTNER, Vaddey (1970 – ), In the Shadow of the Banyan, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2013, ISBN 978-1-4516-5771-5

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Book 74: Kashmir (English) – The Collaborator (Mirza WAHEED)

 

Captain Kadian takes a large swig from his glass tumbler, closes his eyes for a moment, smacks his lips, and says, ‘The job’s not that hard, you see, you just go down once a week or fifteen days, and the money, the money is not bad at all.’

 

This novel is set in Indian Kashmir, near the ‘Line of Control’ with Pakistan. Kashmir isn’t an independent country (though you suspect most Kashmiris might want it to be). When India and Pakistan gained independence, the Muslim-majority state was ruled by an indecisive Hindu maharaja who opted for India at the last moment. Open and covert warfare between Pakistan and India, and Kashmiri militants, for decades has been the consequence. Both countries claimed the state and occupy it (India the majority). India promised an independence referendum at the outset, that has never been held. Some sixty years later, no solution is in sight. The lovely valley is perhaps the world’s most likely flashpoint for a nuclear war.
In ‘The Collaborator’, brutal, drunken Indian Army Captain Kadian gives a marvellous self-justification for his actions, going through the full catalogue of rationalisations with which such people kid themselves (only). It’s their own fault that atrocities occur, can’t be helped, just part of his job, I’m just a tiny cog in the machine, it’s the law, those who whinge about human rights don’t understand, I have a family too, I didn’t kill them myself, they chose to die, it would have happened anyway, even if I agreed I couldn’t do anything.
He forces the boy narrator to ‘collaborate’ and count the fallen corpses in the typically beautiful Kashmir valley on the border (a job he considers too dangerous for his own soldiers); every day he expects to find one of his boyhood friends who had gone across to Pakistan to join the militants.
The high point is the visit of the Governor of Kashmir, who helicopters in as if on a military operation, humiliating the villagers (who had been warned by an azan ((Muslim call to prayer)) recited backwards), like the preparation for a massacre instead of a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign.
There are a lot of Kashmiri, Arabic and Hindi/Urdu words used, but unfortunately no glossary is provided and they are not always explained.
Although he is speaking of his scavenging expeditions, when the Collaborator says he is tired of it all he must be speaking for most Kashmiris.

 

WAHEED, Mirza (1955 – ), The Collaborator, London, Viking, 2011, ISBN 978-0-670-91895-9

Book 70: Syria (English) – In praise of hatred = Madih al-karahiya (Khaled KHALIFA)

By the end of that summer, hatred had taken possession of me. I was enthused by it; I felt that it was saving me. Hatred gave me the feeling of superiority I was searching for. I carefully read the pamphlets distributed at every meeting with the other girls and memorized whole sections of them, particularly the fatwas charging other sects with heresy. I became closer to my seven companions and grew to love them. We exchanged secrets and books describing the horrific agonies of the grave. My integration with them saved me from my desires for Ghada, who had in my mind become wretched; she was still far from the power and severity I possessed when asked my opinion on punishing those who showed contempt for religion’s doctrines. I astonished them by requesting to make a list of such girls at my school and seeking permission to disfigure them with acid for wearing tight shirts that clearly showed their breasts. Alya’s eyes shone as she asked me to be patient, as if she already knew the date we would do it.

 

Sadly, Syria has slipped a fair way down the list (which I’m trying to read in population order) from when I read this book, due to so many of its people being killed in the sickening civil war. But as it seems like the endgame is coming in the war, its time has finally come for a post. You might feel that it is set in today’s war-torn Syria, but it actually takes place in the 1980s, when a previous President Assad oversaw another terrifying massacre in Aleppo. Plus ça change…

This blistering novel is an interesting female perspective on radicalism. The young narrator is consumed by hatred. She hates not only others but even her own body, warring against her awakening sexuality; she despises her mother; sees her own family as hypocrites – since only one member of her family bothers to get up for the dawn prayers. She hates other Muslim groups that she sees as misguided. And she hates the secular but dictatorial government. She is imprisoned, both physically (in practice) and spiritually, and as much by herself as by others; not only by people, but also by institutions and by history. She can only see an enemy (and she is so like them!) – not the (invisible) good majority, only the bad in people and not the good. She fosters hatred as a weapon to gain power – as do so many around her.

When I was studying Middle Eastern history in the early 1980s, the Lebanese civil war was in full fight. My university tutor warned us that some day Syria would blow up into a far bigger conflagration, but since it was ostensibly stable and peaceful that seemed hard to believe at the time. Alas that he proved right.

This is not a happy read, but an insightful and tragic book, brilliantly written, and vital.

 

KHALIFA, Khaled (خالد خليفة‎) (1964 – ), In praise of hatred, translated from Arabic by Leri Price, London, Black Swan, 2013, ISBN 978-0-552-77613-4

(first published in Arabic 2008)

 

 

Book 57: North Korea (English): The Guest (HWANG Sok-Yong)

The city was like a cinema screen; a flat square of city life lay out there. Watching it made Yosop himself feel as if he were no longer quite three-dimensional. The multitude of people who had created this movie for themselves had singled out Ryu Yosop, and they had no intention of ever letting him in, no matter how desperately he tried to climb into the screen.

 

So far I’ve been unable to run a novel from North Korea down to earth. I hope to be able to find one from there, even if the voice is only that of the government. In the meantime, hopefully this will suffice, and it’s certainly a worthy work. I included Hwang Sok-Yong under North Korea (Ann Morgan equally reasonably counted him under South Korea), since the book deals with the North, the author worked hard for communication between the two nations (he was jailed for seven years by Seoul for travelling to the North without authorisation – which perhaps counts as having ‘lived’ there, if you’re feeling liberal, Gentle Reader?) and he has pulled off the neat trick of being published on both sides of the DMZ. As to where he was born, he neatly evaded the issue by being born in what was then Manchuria (now part of China), and before the country was divided (or rather between divisions, since Korea has spent much of its life divided into two or three countries).
Enough justification; how about the book?
‘The guest’ is on the one hand smallpox; also the foreign viruses Christianity and Communism; and Reverend Ryu Yosǒp, a Korean now living in the US, who visits North Korea after 40 years to face up to what his brother did in the Korean War. He was involved in a massacre between Christians and Communists that formed a sort of subplot within Korean War. This elder brother dies 3 days before he was due to leave for the reunion. Reverend Ryu Yosǒp goes instead.
It must be said that there can be a bit of a tendency among Koreans to blame foreigners for their troubles, not only in the North but to some extent also in the South – and not totally without justification. (Nor do the Koreans have this tendency to themselves). But author Hwang Sok-yong is at pains to show that no side is innocent in these troubles, and that there is a need for understanding and eventually some sort of catharsis. The author saw his novel as a sort of shamanistic exorcism ceremony (shamanism is still very big in South Korea), and there is still hope for reconciliation.
Of course Korea’s great tragedy is its division since the war, and the cruel way this has separated families, almost all of whom will never get the chance to reconnect. The Guest gave me a good feeling for the awkward dance that happens when one is lucky enough to be allowed to meet those left in the North, and what it feels like in general to be a Westerner on a tour in North Korea.
It’s not always an easy read (it can be confusing as to whose voice is speaking at the time) but its literary quality is very high. The author rightly considers it vital for every voice to be heard, in a sort of literary truth and reconciliation commission.
Considering the heavy personal price that the author had to pay for this book, and his brave attempt to build a bridge over a raging river, this is a vitally important book that needs to be read to understand the Korean psyche.

 

HWANG Sok-yong (1943 – ), The Guest, translated from Korean by Kyung-Ja Chun & Maya West, New York, Seven Stories Press, ISBN 978-1-58322-751-0
(originally published Taiwan 1993 and 1996)

 

Book 45: Malaysia (English) – Garden of Evening Mists (Tan Twan Eng)

Movement high above us, higher than the heron, caught our attention. We both raised our faces to the sky at the same time. Aritomo pointed with the handle of his walking stick, looking like a prophet in an ancient land. In the furthest reaches of the eastern sky, where it had already turned to night, streaks of light were fanning out. I did not know what they were at first, but when I realised what I was looking at, a sigh misted from between my lips.
It was a storm of meteors, arrows of light shot by arches from the far side of the universe, igniting and burning up as they pierced the atmospheric shield. Hundreds of them burned out halfway, flaring their brightness just before they died.
Standing there with our heads tilted back to the sky, our faces lit by ancient starlight and the dying fires of those fragments of a planet broken up long ago, I forgot where I was, what I had gone through, what I had lost.

 

A rather tetchy retired High Court magistrate, lone survivor of a Japanese concentration camp during the Second World War, eccentrically decides to build, in memory of her sister who did not survive, a Japanese garden in the Cameron Highlands. She has a fascinating love-hate relationship with Japan, Japanese and Japanese culture, and although she is reluctant to admit to this love it is obvious in the way she lets it occupy her life. Even to the extent of volunteering for a sort of torture at the hands of a Japanese. To learn how to build her memorial she has to apprentice herself to a local Japanese settler, once Emperor Hirohito’s gardener. (One of the few obvious boo-boos is that a Japanese would call a deceased emperor by their reign name, not their given name, after their decease). I love books that connect some of the ‘smaller’ cultures of the world, as it were underneath the main current of world history. My favourite work in this genre is Amitabh Ghosh’s In an Antique Land, but this touching novel, with its surprising connections between Malaysia, Japan and South Africa is definitely up there. It is about flawed people living in a flawed world, trying their hardest to come to terms with the difficulty of existence.

 

ENG, Tan Twan (1972 – ), The Garden of Evening Mists, Newcastle upon Tyne, Canongate, 2012, ISBN 978-1-78211-017-0

 

Book 28: Burma (Myanmar) (English) – Irrawaddy Tango (Wendy LAW-YONE)

 

Set in an orwellian southeast Asian country which is a not really disguised Burma (the Irrawaddy of the title sort of gives it away!) it follows the wife of the country’s military dictator (an equally thinly-disguised U Ne Win), who has the book’s title as her unlikely nickname. Since it leaps from their first meeting to their married life, where she is already sarcastic and fearful of him, you are left with the question, why did she marry him in the first place? She seems pretty jaundiced almost from the beginning of her life, certainly about all her men, the political movements she comes into contact with, and the countries where she lived (Burma, the US and even Thailand!) and the whole book is quite bleak, for which you can’t blame someone who grew up under the dictatorship or was exiled from her country. Nevertheless Law-Yone is witty and often funny.

She compares her people to a column of caterpillars who found their way onto a pot:

“Following their leader, the insects had reached the rim and were making an endless circuit round and round the lip. Not for minutes, not for hours, but for days they circled that pot, unable to break out of their roundabout, even after collapsing periodically; even after – at long last – one member would actually strike out on its own.

In the end every adventurer returned to fall back in step with the column. And on went the march – an endless looping of the loop by witless troops who’d lost their leader but were simply unable to abandon their path.”

Another more sympathetic and heart-wrenching portrait of a beaten but dignified people comes in a picture of a robbed platform vendor:

“At one big junction we were in our seats, having a snack, when we heard a commotion on the platform. One of the food vendors, a girl about my age, was standing with a tray on her head, crying her eyes out. The tray was empty, but the girl – by force of habit, apparetly – kept it balanced on her head. The effort required an erect posture comically at odds with her misery.

The face under the tray was puffy and wet. Through her sobs, she was trying to tell some sort of story to the people who’d gathered around.

‘What is happening?’ Merc asked, in her quaint Daan, of someone below.

‘She has been robbed,’ said the person on the platform, in precise English. He had a plump mole in the middle of his chin out of which grew three luxuriant hairs. ‘They have taken everything. They have taken the food, they have taken all her money. Now she fears going home because she will be thrashed.’”

A cynical and bitter portrait of a downtrodden country which deserves better.

At the same time I was reading Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin as my travel book, which proved the perfect accompaniment. At first blush, Orwell’s stint as a policeman in the British colonial government might not seem to have much to do with his masterworks, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, but Larkin shows just how ‘orwellian’ the military dictatorship was at its height.

 

Wendy LAW-YONE (1947 – ), Irrawaddy Tango, Evanston, IL, Triquarterly Books, Northwestern University Press, 1993, ISBN 0-8101-5142-1

Book 27: South Africa (English) – Disgrace (J.M. COETZEE)

A lecturer (lecher?) commits an ethical crime at his university and is sanctioned by it. He is, we assume, a White, although I don’t think this is ever spelled out. He refuses to admit his guilt but ‘goes into laager’ (as a South African would say), staying on his daughter’s isolated farm where she lives a rather idealistic 1960’s-ish lifestyle (VW Kombi included). While she looks after him, they no longer see eye to eye. She seems to see supine acceptance and resignation as the only way to survive in the new South Africa where Blacks have the power, at least partly as penance for the apartheid that was inflicted on them, and despite her terrible suffering seems more likely to get along in the new world than her fossil father.
“’Aren’t you nervous by yourself?’
Lucy shrugs. ‘There are the dogs. Dogs still mean something. The more dogs, the more deterrence. Anyhow, if there were to be a break-in, I don’t see that two people would be better than one.’
‘That’s very philosophical.’
‘Yes. When all else fails, philosophise.’”
There are two parts to the story. In the first, set in the city, he is in his own world and in control (or so he thinks). In the second, out on the farm, everything is out of his control, the Blacks are taking over, and he is incapable of understanding them. His daughter, on the other hand, is full of forbearance and fortitude, and can adapt to the changing circumstances (which isn’t to say that she isn’t traumatised by them).
The characters brilliantly symbolise the changing face of this fraught land. This is a simply written but insightful novel by a truly great writer.

 

COETZEE, J. M. (1940 – ), Disgrace, London, Vintage, 2008 (originally published 1999), ISBN 978-0-099-52683-4